Quebec City’s largest metro area, Montreal (phonetically mon-e-hal), presents an interesting mix of culture, history, and sheekness. With its French traditions, and ultra-modern looks, this city is basically a river island on the river St. Lawrence. It was late evening on a holiday weekend, when we drove into the city and checked in to our hotel in the downtown.
There is enough to keep a tourist busy in the city, especially in the summer months (or weeks should I say!). Countless museums, a nice water front, historical landmarks, and obviously the jazz bars. Navigating the streets was not a problem for non-French speakers, as people are mostly equally eloquent with both English and French. Being the long weekend, the streets and cafes were filled with tourists. Yet the city was no way disorderly.
Here are some of the must visit places for a two day trip:
1. Notre-dame Bassilica: A city distinctly European, did live up to the expectation in terms of offering exquisite Gothic Revival artwork inside the cathedral. Interestingly enough for a cathedral, the stained glass paintings (my favorite type of artwork inside historic cathedrals), depict religious history of Montreal instead of typical biblical stories. The admission was CAD 5.00 per person, and it was closed for visitors for multiple weddings. Therefore there was a line too, but it was worth the wait for the charm and uniqueness of the building.
2. Place des Armes: Right opposite of Notre-Dame Bassilica, it is one of the few public squares in the city. Around it are some of the historic landmarks like the Bank of Montreal, and other old buildings. Plus the usual cacophony of the crowd, being centrally located in the old town, builds up a cheerful atmosphere. Sip a coffee or take a casual stroll along, or even just sit there to people watch.
3. River front and Clock Tower: Walk east from the Place des Armes, and you will reach the water front. During a summer day, you are bound to find people in the water engaged in various water-sports, and other thrill rides. There are artificial beaches created too, which were lame to us as being a Florida resident. But I can see the necessity of having warm sandy beaches in this part of the continent. A walk along the river, while enjoying the views of this beautiful city, will take you to the historic Clock Tower. Built by Gillette and Johnson, who also built the Big Ben and other clock towers around the world, has a 160 odd step staircase to go atop. Needless to say, the wide angle view of the city from the top was mesmerizing.
4. Museum of Fine Arts: Although we skipped it to save time, as avid art enthusiast, it would have been great to spend some time in this museum to soak in the rich history of the city through art. Mostly free, but exhibitions vary from CAD 15 – CAD 20.
5. Underground City Market: Montreal has the largest underground network of market complexes and food courts etc. We had a tough time finding the entrances, but most entrances are through the Metro Rail stations. Find your nearest Metro station, and enter the amazing maze of indoor streets. Incidentally the Montreal Comicon was on when we were there. Characters from our favorite movies and novels were a treat to watch.
6. Mont Royal: During the summer months, a drive up the Mount Royal, be it in the day or night, is a treat to the eyes. The picturesque view of the city lit up in the night, or the magnificent panorama during the day definitely calls for a couple of visits. If driving, just enter this address in your GPS and drive up the mountains. Then find your spot on the way or around the address for best results. In the winter, you can enjoy some ice skating in the Beaver lake, which boasts an amazing place to have picnics or casual strolls during the summer.
7. Arts District and Jazz: Montreal is not complete without experiencing Jazz. The week long Montreal Jazz Festival was taking place during this weekend, and we walked up to Quartier des Spectacles and enjoyed the music all evening. Barring the festival, there are many Jazz bars around this area where you can enjoy live Jazz performed by local and traveling artists alike. But it is highly recommended to plan your trip during the annual Jazz Fest to enjoy some of the most memorable music festivals in the country. More information here.
8. Others: Must see places include the Bio Dome, Botanical Garden, Le Plateau, and St. Joseph Oratory.
Food Scene and Nightlife:
1. Chinatown: We love authentic Chinese food, and have been to many Chinatowns around North America. Obviously did not want to miss out on a chance to have lunch here too. We tried the Xiaolong Baos and Shabu Shabu (Chinese Hot Pot) in Chinatown. Located on the La Gauchetiere street at a walkable distance from the old town area, this place is full of Asian restaurants and bakeries. A must visit for Asian food lovers.
2. L’Orignal: Canadian style restaurant serving European Fare. Interesting decor, with a robust wine list, this is definitely a gem we discovered. Find Yelp reviews here.
3. The Mon Cafe: Cool and hip breakfast joint. Nice coffee, and the croissants with boiled egg and meat was out of the world. Yelp reviews here.
4. Restaurant L’avenue: For foodie travelers like us, who do not mind standing in line for an hour for a good Sunday brunch, this is the place to be. Food is definitely comparable to Chicago’s Bongo Room, which is our all time favorite brunch place. Must check out if you are looking to explore a city through its heart.
We split our stay in the downtown and the airport area at the W Downtown, and Sheraton Montreal Airport. The W is obviously chic with a cool nightclub. But the airport being not too far from the city, makes it an acceptable choice if you have a car.
Additional Tips and Info:
Wi-fi: The city of Montreal has definitely paid a ton of attention to the well being of the internet hungry tourists. Connect to the free wifi of the city especially the Old Montreal and Downtown area.
Restrooms: Many clean and safe public restrooms are located in the nooks and crannies of the city.
Language: It helps if you parlez Francais but no one frowned at us if we said je ne pas parle Francais. We were astonished by the locals’ ability to switch between French and English so swiftly and needless to say how courteous people are in this city.
Pick up a map from any hotel or convenience stores, and voila. Enjoy the city streets and the markets, and the weekend festivals in summer. Check out some of the snapshots from our trip below.